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The greatest strategy game of 2014 - Distant Worlds: Universe

Adama Approved

Moving from the earliest steps toward the stars to space operas and sci-fi dreams that could be responsible for an expanded universe of spin-off novels, Distant Worlds has never seen a horizon that it doesn't want to touch. It copes with the enormous scale by allowing players to pick and choose their responsibilities. Yes, the game was first released four years ago and, yes, it's an expensive and acquired taste. But this is the most complete version of one of the most unique, enormous and engrossing strategy games ever made.

Adam: They should have sent a poet. And a playwright, and possibly a novelist or two.

Just as grand strategy games are often alternate history generators, Distant Worlds: Universe simulates a million possible futures. This version of the game, packed with all previously released expansions, contains all of the tools and rules to create drama on the broadest stage imaginable. I tend to begin with a single planet, a race standing at the threshold of their great odyssey and a universe waiting to be explored and exploited.

From there, you might expand into the farthest reaches, discovering remnants of those who straddled the stars in millennia long long ago. You could build a trade empire or dominate through aggression. You could maintain the peace, using diplomacy and the occasional army of fleets for hire. You could even, quite brilliantly, develop the most desirable sectors and rely on the tourist spacebuck to fund your research and expansion.

If you don't want to write an (almost) complete history of life, the universe and everything, Distant Worlds is entirely customisable and moddable. http://www.moddb.com/games/distant-worlds/mods Even without user-created races, systems and tech, the initial game setup can be used to create a facsimile of various science fiction settings. Whether your preference is for Banks' Culture, Roddenberry's Federation or something with a little more zip and zap, Distant Worlds can be bent to your will.

If, rather than starting with galactic empires in place, you allow a universe to develop from the initial journeys into the unknown, you might take as much pleasure watching it take shape as much as actually sculpting it yourself. Like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, Distant Worlds is a complex simulation with a strategy game laid across it. You don't have to play to win, you can happily play simply to experience the creation and destruction of spacefaring civilisations.

The central innovation of the game, which has been in place since the first release back in 2010, is the automation system. If you want it to, Distant Worlds can play itself, ticking over like a perfect machine created to build galaxies and the stories that they're made of. It's a system that allows you to play within your own comfort zone, concentrating your efforts on the areas that interest you - or that you're capable of handling - while the computer tackles other business. In that sense, the automation is a way to customise difficulty settings to fit precisely with a player's own capabilities, but its overall effect on the game runs much deeper.

In Distant Worlds, each playable entity is a presence at the centre of an autonomous society. Private enterprises will handle the micromanagement of your empire, beginning with mining companies that gather the resources that enable early exploration and colonisation, and the basic functions will continue to operate and adapt as your decisions change the course of your culture. The game looks for areas where work is needed and creates AI-controlled vessels to act as cogs in the machine.

Not only does this reduce the possible tedium of handling every minor asset of an enormous, system-spanning empire, it also creates a believable industrial-commercial entity, in which control is not necessarily from the top-down in every instance. That feeds into the use of automation to allow AI control of various features - whether military, diplomatic, scientific or whatever else - which, along with the start-up customisation and modding, allows players to mould Distant Worlds to fit their own style of play.

The impact of the automation on your enjoyment of the game will depend, largely, on what you hope to discover in a strategic simulation. Distant Worlds hits the sweet spot for me because I like to roleplay within the bounds of a game's structure, using whatever systems it offers to find a narrative thread to pull and pick at. Here, I can be the fleet commander who takes gradual control of a civilisation as his fame and the power of that civilisation spreads through the stars. By cranking back the automation as a game unfolds, I take control of features as they become vital, and by that point there's a shape to the society that I'm controlling - the game creates a scenario, dynamically, and I can choose to take centre stage in the most exciting acts.

It's a far cry from the sort of strategy game in which every action requires almost-instant analysis and reaction. In Distant Worlds, it's possible to feel like an observer and to some that may be a weakness, but for me it's the game's greatest strength. I believe that it's mechanics are honest and cleanly dissectable because I can watch the AI's use of them from one minute to the next. That goes a long way toward convincing me that the results that those mechanics generates are worthy of attention and study.

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